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January 07, 2004

"Killing Freud"

Dear Friedrich --

Though Freud died in 1939, his reputation lived on and on -- despite the fact that good scholars repeatedly demonstrated how utterly unscientific his ideas were. Then, in the 1990s, the Berkeley professor and literary critic Frederick Crews trained his sights on Freud. Not much remained when Crews was done. Crews' book The Memory Wars (buyable here) is one of the most entertaining and brilliant demolition jobs I've ever read.

Still, a few intellectuals persist in seeing value in Freud's work; most of them, of course, inhabit liberal-arts departments. (Film Studies is apparently still very hot on Freud.) For whatever quirky reasons, one of my micro-hobbies is following the flailings of the handful of remaining true believers. Their rationales can get entertainingly desperate. Harold Bloom, for example, just can't bring himself to let go of his hero. Instead, he's invented this justification for keeping Freud in the pantheon: "OK, so Freud wasn't a scientist. He was a great literary artist!" Bloom, greatness, genius and Freud, eh?

But maybe the time really has come to write RIP on the tombstone of Freud's legacy. I just spent a couple of enjoyable hours with Todd Dufresne's new book Killing Freud (which is buyable here). Dufresne turns a few too many po-mo pirouettes, and I'll never get around to reading every word of his book. But I couldn't resist cheering the show he puts on anyway.

Because what Dufresne sets out to do is dance on Freud's grave. "How did this awful man and his worse ideas ever get themselves taken seriously? What in god's name were people thinking?" -- these are a couple of the questions Dufresne asks. (For a scholar, Dufresne has a lot of nose-thumbing common sense.) I'm going to indulge myself and type in a few of my favorite passages from the book. Here's hoping they amuse.

But, really, do we need Freud to tell us that people are aggressive? Do we really need the overblown theory of the death drive to explain the rise of Nazi Germany? ... We most certainly do not need Freud to help us describe the world -- inner or outer. If, on the other hand, there is a use for Freud and pschoanalysis, it is as a cautionary tale, or, if you prefer, as a case study of a modern politico-religious movement having just about run its course ...

First of all, the unconscious: there is no reason to hang onto a theory inherited from the dubious baggage of mesmerism and hypnotism (and which has nothing to do with what is sometimes called the cognitive unconscious). Boogie-men and other unknown forces may make for excellent bed-time stories, but that does not make them true. As the case of Anna O. amply demonstrates, the myth of the unconscious is the direct result of a paranoid discourse bent on proving its own assumptions ...

Repression is just another myth of psychoanalysis. It must be admitted, moreover, that even the commonplace notion of "repression" as avoidance is unfounded: quite simply, no one has ever fallen ill from an act of "repression," but only from the specialist discourse of repression that Freud popularized ...

It is an embarrassment for psychoanalysis that this most celebrated of all anaylytic patients [the "Wolfman"] was in and out of psychoanalysis for sixty years. When asked about his experience by an Austrian journalist, [he] confessed that psychoanalysis had been a "catastrophe" in his life. He also insisted that his shocking revelations not be published until after his death, since Kurt Eissler and the Sigmund Freud Archives were paying him what amounted to hush money ...

It was politics and religiosity, rather than ideas, that gave birth to institutional psychoanalysis in the 1920s ...

Informed critics know very well that Freud fabricated his findings and was motivated by factors other than science and objectivity. So why do so few people know, or care to know, about these sometimes stunning facts? ... [It's because Freud's defenders], like Freud before them, are motivated by special interests: for example, by Marxist, structuralist, or post-structuralist interests. And because their works are dogmatically blind to intractable problems in Freud's work, including baisc facts, they have the effect of blinding nearly everyone who reads them. We love to be dazzled, even by the spectacle of crushed glass.

At one inspired moment, Dufresne calls Freudianism "this hall of mirrors, this bottomless dream ... which after all never ceased to find deep meaning along the length of its own shadow." At another he calls psychoanalysis "a serious menace based on a top-heavy theoretical edifice, faulty premises, circular and self-validating arguments, methodological laxity, motivated self-deception, bad faith and lies piled upon lies for more than a century."

Pretty delicious, no?

It all does make me wonder, though: once modernism (and po-mo/decon/etc) and Freudianism have finally been shoved irrevocably off their pedestals -- and the sooner the better, of course -- what will remain of our '70s liberal-arts college education? Were we taught anything that wasn't utter nonsense? And where do we go to demand a refund?



posted by Michael at January 7, 2004


Perhaps was what actually weirdest about our Lousy Ivy educations was that the 1970s actually represented the beginning of the current era of rather interesting brain- and cognitive-science. Odd we never got to hear about that stuff, eh?

I'm not much of a fan of "The Closing of the American Mind," but what is interesting is its description of the schism within universities between the humanities and sciences. Bloom points out that the main reason trendy nonsense like most postmodernism, multi-culturalism, etc. has flourished without intellectual challenge from the 'adults' (i.e., the science faculty)is because the adults long ago quietly kissed off the humanities as a source of serious thought. Looking at our Lousy Ivy Education, in which we were carefully laden with a series of 50-100 year old aesthetic, political and psychological theories (all ripe for criticism), can you honestly blame the scientists?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 7, 2004 8:48 AM

Oddly, even though all of Freud's specific theories have been de-bunked, what he did actually "worked," in that his "hysterical" patients did get better.

Maybe the same goes in academia. If Freudian analysis solves the problem, then there's no reason to go back and look at whether it is based on solid foundations.

Posted by: Rv. Agnos on January 7, 2004 11:04 AM

1) My understanding of Freud's importance is that he was the first to come up with a systematic theory of the psyche and emotions when there had been none before. He's also the first to put forth that if certain "points" in childhood are not handled properly it can result in particular adult needs or neuroses, and that IS an element that practically every clinical therapist subscribes to. Even if he got a lot wrong, he gave everybody else a target to shoot at, when there had been no model at all before. His weakness seemed as much in the fact that having "identified" a problem, he had no clue how to solve it, rather than all of his diagnosis was off.

2) I guess I don't see the science behind Dufresne's theory any more than I see the science behind Freud---saying that there is no "repression" without backing it up is just the same as saying there IS repression without backing it up. Where's the clinical test that proves there is no repression?

3)"Repression is just another myth of psychoanalysis. It must be admitted, moreover, that even the commonplace notion of "repression" as avoidance is unfounded: quite simply, no one has ever fallen ill from an act of "repression," but only from the specialist discourse of repression that Freud popularized..." First of all, whatever the hell that last sentence even means....But saying there is no such thing as "repression" and "avoidance" just seems dumb for anybody who's actually been wandering around this planet for any length of time. Avoiders are very commonplace! Although Mr. Dufresene might be doing some "avoiding" of his own if he doesn't want to see it...

Posted by: annette on January 7, 2004 11:35 AM

FvB -- You write: "...our Lousy Ivy Education, in which we were carefully laden with a series of 50-100 year old aesthetic, political and psychological theories (all ripe for criticism)..." -- nicely put, if all too depressingly true. Bizarre, isn't it, the degree to which we were given a brainwashing in myth rather than a real education, no?

Rv Agnos -- Really? My anti-Freud books aren't close to hand, but I recall vividly that one of the main gripes about Freud is that he lied about the effects of the treatments he gave -- the Wolfman was a case in point. I recall too that one of the main gripes about psychoanalysis is that it's no more effective than a placebo -- and that it can in fact cause active harm.

Annette -- I suspect that if you were to go through a few of the books about Freud and Freudianism that I've looked at you might feel shocked -- Freud's system has about as much scientific basis as astrology. And Freud conducted himself as anything but a scientist, all the while claiming scientific status for his whacko theories and observations. (Crews' book really is a lot of brainy fun.) His ideas and language obviously have a lot of power, but (like Marxism) they have the power of myth, not science.

As for "repression" and "avoidance," I think they're perfectly good pop-psych ways of referring to certain behaviors that we've all noticed. But they don't cut it as science. Despite years of searching, no one as far as I know has actually observed "repression" (of the Freudian type) at work in the brain or nervous system. No one's ever observed "the Oedipus complex" at work in the brain or nervous sytem either. I guess we have to keep open the possibility that one day they will be spotted at work in there somewhere. But till then, they're just wild speculation, and the burden of scientific proof isn't on the people who say "where are they?" It's on the people who claim they're real, yet have never been able to put a finger on them.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 7, 2004 12:13 PM

Where does Annette defend the quality of Freud's work? " Even if he got a lot wrong, he gave everybody else a target to shoot at, when there had been no model at all before."

I guess they do take Freud seriously in Lousy Ivy Universities and at the MSW and LSW and quack psychology level. I've always seen serious people use the Annette spin...

I've been through a lot of Freud, at various times, and most of what I remember is the humorous pretentious pronunciation from that Woody Allen movie... seriously, the bearded one does seem to have made an important step when he wondered why, if literature seems to agree that people have this predictable way of behavior, then why hasn't science tried to understand it.

The downside, of course, is that people spend a lot of time trying to understand behavior instead of simply changing it. Try to understand? Perhaps “wallowing in it” is more apt.

Posted by: j.c. on January 7, 2004 12:28 PM

Sorry if I seemed to be jumping on Annette, which I certainly didn't mean to do -- always fun comparing notes with her. What I was hoping to do was bring the focus back to the "is it science or not" question. Was Freud important? Sure, but not as a scientist. Hey, Stalin was important too.

Incidentally, a field called "psychology" did exist prior to Freud. The fact that we tend to think of him as this godhead who stands at the source of it all is yet another one of the Freud-industry p-r triumphs that deserves undermining.

What the guy did was dream up an immense religio-mythical system and put it over (at least among some people) as science. The importance of Freud has less to do with any substantial contributions he might have made to science and thought (and what were they, anyway?) than with the fact that he got away with it.

The question that Annette asked about modernism --if it was so misguided, why was it so successful?-- needs to be asked about Freud too. IMHO, of course.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 7, 2004 12:41 PM

Y'mean, you don't think astrology is science, EITHER???

Seriously, I remember a quote (can't remember the quoter) from long before Freud: "The heart has reasons that reason cannot explain." OK, I grant you, in terms of the "scientific method", psych in general and Freud in particular may be lacking. what? The scientific method has certainly fallen short repeatedly in the past, in spite of the charts and math equations. Remember the gas they used to give women to knock them out during childbirth? The one that caused all the horrible birth defects? Remember when X-rays were supposed to be perfectly safe, and electro-shock was believed to treat manic-depression? And when AIDS was believed to be drug-related? All terribly scientific.

The fact that science has not been able to identify "the oedipus complex" at work in the brain may be more an indictment of science's understanding of the brain than the fact that it's just not there. Science seems to have managed very little understanding of the brain. And that's why I'm unsure why people can say Freud has been "disproven." (I understand your point is that he may have lied about all his examples, which would certainly undermine his "science." I'm just not sure anyone can say for sure if he was right or wrong. It's almost like if Freud had just written essays like Nietzche, you guys would have been holed up in the lousy Ivy University, considering him a brilliant stylist and bomb-thrower. It's like what's undermined him is that he pretended any "science" and since Nietzche never even pretended to be "scientific" he's more legit. I don't think the "over-man" has been identified in an MRI yet either).

"The downside, of course, is that people spend a lot of time trying to understand behavior instead of simply changing it." Again, I am floored by this: not a lot of walkin' around in the real world is going into thinking it's quite that simple.

Posted by: annette on January 7, 2004 2:31 PM

Was Freud a scientist? No, of course not.

Was he a great Bloomean literary artist? No. I really don't think so--although I would argue (and I have--in an essay entitled Homodiegetic Homicide) that there are very interesting parallels between Dora and The Turn of the Screw, although it's debatable whether Freud had any clue that this was going on!

But as a literary critic, Sig is very useful. It's common knowledge that he got more of his ideas from Dostoyefsky, Dickens, Wordsworth, Goethe, Coleridge, Shakespeare than from actual human subjects, and if we just kept this in mind, we'd have no problem appreciating Freud's real achievements!

Posted by: David Fiore on January 7, 2004 2:39 PM

I have no idea how prominently Freud is represented in my school's psychology department (I'm trying to avoid the wrath of the feminine that I would incur by going in there and being a skeptic of the pseudoscience), but he's definitely popular among the lit-crit and religion crowds. I suspect it's because Freud has still retained his popular perception as a scientist, and thereby lends credibility to otherwise inconceivably absurd ideas. Lacan is rather popular with students and professors as well. It's rather tiresome when everytime a cylindrical object appears somewhere, someone immediately calls it a phallic symbol and references the phallic gaze. I should start making reference to oblivious fetishization of the progenitor everytime someone brings them up.

Posted by: . on January 7, 2004 11:14 PM

annette: The scientific method has certainly fallen short repeatedly in the past, in spite of the charts and math equations. Remember the gas they used to give women to knock them out during childbirth? The one that caused all the horrible birth defects?

We learned better.

Remember when X-rays were supposed to be perfectly safe

We learned better.

and electro-shock was believed to treat manic-depression?

We learned better.

And when AIDS was believed to be drug-related?

We learned better.

Um, Annette, the reason we learned better is that someone used the scientific method. Every example you've given illustrates the scientific method working just fine. Science does not promise perfect knowledge, and it certainly does not promise perfect knowledge immediately. All it offers is a way to construct better models over time. And it just so happens to be the best way ever discovered for doing so.

Posted by: physicist on January 8, 2004 1:02 AM


The scientific method is perfect for understanding the cosmos.

Unfortunately, cosmology is the lowest branch of philosophy...

And Friedrich, given your interest in Nietzsche, I would think you'd agree that the "grown-ups" are just going have to face the fact that, in the vastly more important realms of ethics and epistemology, "serious thought" is, by necessity, metaphorical, rather than methodical.


Posted by: david fiore on January 8, 2004 8:03 AM

This discussion has gone all over the place, but it hasn't touched much on the worth of a 1970's education. Most of those ill-equipped graduates have done rather well, if present company is any gauge. Academic systems always tend to teach a lot of nonsense. Consider some other academic traditions: the training of a Chinese bureaucrat during the T'ang Dynasty, or a Theravadan monk in Sri Lanka, etc. Perhaps it's not the content but the discipline that matters.

Posted by: Alan Sullivan on January 8, 2004 8:21 AM

"Perhaps it's not the content but the discipline that matters." Don't forget the networking...

Posted by: j.c. on January 8, 2004 11:46 AM

Alan -- Someone's '70s education instilled discipline?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 8, 2004 11:50 AM

Yes...and we might just "learn better" that psychology has some merit!!

Glad I wasn't one of those people who died twenty years prematurely because the thought x-rays were OK, while the "scientific method" took its, you know, sweet time.

Posted by: annette on January 8, 2004 2:00 PM

Annette, the scientific method requires testable hypotheses to be used. Freud's work doesn't really contain any of them.

Please enlighten us about how else besides the scientific method any of the modern world you enjoy could have been built? Do you know what it IS?

Posted by: David Mercer on January 8, 2004 5:57 PM

Michael, merely witnessing discipline was an eye-opening experience for a slacker like me.

As for Freud, I knew he was a quack when I first read about the nose job he and his colleague did on that poor woman (the names elude me at the moment). Even so, I enjoyed the challenge of his ideas.

Posted by: Alan Sullivan on January 9, 2004 9:08 AM

Oh boy---yes, David, I know what the scientific method IS...and what it apparently is not!

Given my examples above, and the fact that the only response has been "We learned better"...I would have to say that a scientific method which can't get any further than, oh, hell, let's throw it out there and if a bunch of people drop dead we'll "learn better" seems to me to have some, uh, holes in it. IMHO.

Posted by: annette on January 9, 2004 12:33 PM

Cost: Number of dead people
Benefit: Number of people not dead because of science

Which number is bigger? What other system could produce similar or better results?

Additionally, the scientific method needs a name of its own because this is a unique method and not merely " oh, hell, let's throw it out there and if a bunch of people drop dead we'll "learn better."

Posted by: j.c. on January 9, 2004 3:21 PM

I don't know enough about Freud's general program to judge, but this article from yesterday's Science is interesting:

Neural Systems Underlying the Suppression of Unwanted Memories

"Over a century ago, Freud proposed that unwanted memories can be excluded from awareness, a process called repression. It is unknown, however, how repression occurs in the brain. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to identify the neural systems involved in keeping unwanted memories out of awareness. Controlling unwanted memories was associated with increased dorsolateral prefrontal activation, reduced hippocampal activation, and impaired retention of those memories. Both prefrontal cortical and right hippocampal activations predicted the magnitude of forgetting. These results confirm the existence of an active forgetting process and establish a neurobiological model for guiding inquiry into motivated forgetting."

Posted by: Shai on January 9, 2004 9:05 PM

See...Shai's quote demonstrates, perhaps we're aleady "learning better."

My point has nothing to do specifically with the "scientific method." It has to do with criticizing something simply because the Scientific Method hasn't been applied to it. The Scientific Method was applied to x-rays and thought they had proven they were safe. Then they "learned better." So, it clearly has its limitations.

Posted by: annette on January 10, 2004 1:19 PM

Of course we see farther than Freud could have. We're standing on his shoulders. Easy, then, to say we don't need him anymore.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on January 10, 2004 7:21 PM

Dear Micheal,

If you're wondering why anyone takes psychoanalysis seriously, why don't you try reading Andrew Sullivan's book Love Undetectable? It seems not all Freud's defenders have "Marxist, structuralist, or post-structuralist interests."

Posted by: vvenva on February 3, 2004 2:57 AM

Have any of you anit-Freudians come across the book "Freud Scientifically Reappraised : Testing the Theories and Therapy" by Seymour Fisher and Roger P. Greenberg of SUNY Upstate Medical University? It demonstrates the scientific validity of many aspects of Freud's theories (as well as shortcoming of others).


Posted by: Black Monk on February 19, 2004 10:51 AM

"Not much remained when Crews was done. Crews' book The Memory Wars (buyable here) is one of the most entertaining and brilliant demolition jobs I've ever read"

Have you ever heard the term Ad hominem attack? If not Crews gives us one of the most lucid examples to date. I have problems with Freud, too, but Crews' attack is very far from brilliant, and hardly ranks as a demolition.

Posted by: A. Kubiak on May 22, 2004 1:33 PM

Have any of you actually read Freud (I mean really read)?

Posted by: Mona on June 7, 2004 7:14 PM

Good question Mona, but more to the point, have any of you actually TRIED psychoanalysis (I mean REALLY tried it)? Until then, you are not qualified to offer an opinion. Psychoanalysis is not "academic", or "theoretical", it is a PROCESS. A living, breathing process! Most of you just don't get it, and can't get it, until you GET IT. Got it?

And spare me any comments about "religions" or "rituals" or "brain washing". It will only show even more that you don't get the meantime I suggest you do something useful with your lives....or develop your own theory of mind and show how it can treat (without drugs) mental illness and existential crises!

Posted by: Robert on June 16, 2004 2:39 AM

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